Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel checks the standings every day to see where his team stacks up in the Eastern Conference race, but where the Pacers finish in the standings is less important to Vogel than how they finish the season in preparation for the playoffs.
"A lot is still to be determined," said Vogel prior to Monday's game with regard to the playoff race. "More important than anything, we've got habits that need to be improved if we are going to make a deep playoff run like we expect to make. We've got to get better and that's the biggest thing that we've got to focus on in the next ten games."
Sure it helps to play meaningful games at this point as they play for home court advantage and a third seed in the East which should help keep the team's edge and sharpness as they continue to focus on the task at hand.
For the Pacers, though keeping that focus can be a struggle for 48 minutes. 1070 The Fan's Dan Dakich offered an observation on Tuesday about how you the Pacers have the talent to compete with anyone in the NBA but they also have a tendency to relax to a point where you can actually see the body language change and filter through the team as it did in the fourth quarter against Toronto when the Pacers let a 15-point lead slip away before shaking themselves and finishing off the Raptors.
That tendency to let the little things slip for a stretch of the game is what worries Vogel, as well. In fact, forget a stretch of the game, Vogel doesn't want his team to relax on a single possession, so his focus to finish the year is ton continue emphasizing the basic habits that his team needs to consistently execute in order to play at a "championship" level in the playoffs.
Following the win over the Raptors, Vogel reiterated his focus on habits for the final nine games of the season. In fact, the white board in the team's meeting room before the game read : Habit over home court advantage.
That may sound strange but Vogel knows if his team takes care of the little habits he's harping on, the winning and playoff seeding will take care of itself.
"Our goal is yes, to get home court advantage," Vogel said following the game. "But more importantly over the last nine games now is we've got to continue to play every possession building championship level habits if we want to go deep in the playoffs. So that's what this stretch run is about. It's not about seeding, not about home court advantage, it's about improving and building something that is going to hold up in the playoffs."
Oh, and this isn't rocket science. Vogel will provide his team with complex scouting reports and game plans, but the players have to focus on the most basic fundamentals in order to execute the plan. Those fundamental habits are what he wants his players to hone.
"Everything they've been taught since they were in second grade," said Vogel. "Boxing out. Keeping your own man in front of you. Making the extra pass. Screens. Using screens. Everything that goes into execution. Close outs and transition defense. Everything. Knowing the plays. All of the little details that go into executing winning basketball."
Vogel smiled as he said, "knowing the plays" but the point was made that all of these things may seem mundane, but their impact on winning can't be overlooked. They can be the difference between running the same play and getting a layup one time and a contested, fade-away 20-footer the next.
So when you're watching the Pacers play Cleveland over the next two games, take a suggestion from Coach Dakich and don't watch the ball. Instead, focus on what the players off of the ball are doing which will reveal the players doing those little things to make winning plays. Hopefully Vogel's emphasis continues to take hold and the high-level of play the Pacers have shown they can deliver becomes, well...a habit.
Then maybe the Pacers can make a habit of winning in the playoffs.